APRIL 22, 2004
The Anabaptist Colloquium
Tucked away about thirty miles southeast of South Bend, Indiana, sits Goshen College. Home of the Mennonite Historical Library (MHL) and the site where Harold S. Bender founded the Mennonite Quarterly Review (MQR) in 1927, it is regarded by many as the heart of Anabaptist studies in America. Bender's now classic essay "The Anabaptist Vision," presented to the American Society of Church History in 1943, set the course for generations of scholarship on Mennonites, Hutterites, the Amish, and other spiritual heirs of the sixteenth century Radical Reformation.
Earlier this month (April 2-3) I attended the annual Anabaptist Colloquium at Goshen. Here is a roundup of notable scholars and papers that I sighted that weekend:
C. Arnold Snyder's "Was the Bread only Bread, and the Wine only Wine? Sacramental Theology in Five Anabaptist Hymns," challenged the common view that the various Anabaptist groups simply "memorialized" the Eucharist. Snyder argued for levels of "remembrance" that included the dynamic role of the Holy Spirit within the gathered community as well as the role of personal Gelassenheit (yieldedness) in the process of becoming members of Christ's body in baptism. He cited texts such as Hutterite Peter Riedemann's Eucharistic hymn "Dank, Ehr und Preis Sei Gott."
Snyder concluded that the Lord's Supper was celebrated as a mystery of spiritual communion that included bread and wine. At the same time, however, he reasserted the Anabaptist refusal to equate divine mystery with sacerdotal magic; no "hocus pocus" for the Anabaptists -- but no simple memorial either.
Victor Thiessen presented his work in progress on the Marpeck Circle in "Scharnschlager, Maler and Bosch: Lesser Lights of the Kunstbuch." He is currently working on an English translation of this important sixteenth century document.
Alfred Neufeld from Paraguay presented "Menno's Political Theology," a project with direct relevance for Mennonite scholars and churches working on or, even better, working out the classic Christian question of how the Church relates to secular authority. Neufeld summarized seven scholarly approaches that have been used to explain Menno's political theology and suggests that James Stayer's use of the key words "sword," "apoliticism," and "separatist nonresistance" in his 1979 classic Anabaptism and the Sword is "not very helpful to grasp political reality". He contends that the Father of the Ban was not apolitical; he was working out his position in the midst of other first generation Reformers and his theology reflects this fluid situation. Neufeld is particularly drawn to the interpretation that "there is just one ethic for the church and outside the church." This is relevant in light of his experiences with the Paraguayan Mennonite Church, a community going through rapid changes with respect to its engagement with political authority in Paraguay.
Paul Marten's "Yoder's Yiddish Experiment: How the Late John Howard Yoder Reasoned about Sacraments and the Jewish-Christian Schism" took the Colloquium back to the issue of the sacraments by dividing Yoder's thought on the subject into three periods: pre-1979, 1979-1991, and 1991-1994. Paul's presentation was all the more exciting because many scholars in the room had known and worked with Yoder for many years. They were very helpful to Paul, who is working on his Ph.D. at Notre Dame.
This year's colloquium is just a sample of the many important and exciting ethical, theological, sociological, and historical projects taking place in the peace church tradition at Goshen College and other Mennonite colleges and seminaries throughout the world. Public intellectuals ignore the relevance of the peace churches and the scholarship associated with them at their own risk. We need to pay close attention to the rich Anabaptist tradition, a tradition that has put down deep roots in America alongside the other heirs of Reformation Europe's upheavals.
I look forward to next year.
Adam Darlage is a doctoral student in the History of Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School.